Something went wrong on a training-run: the timer ran out and the kick woke them all but Arthur.
Cobb was back for his first job since the Fischer thing; Ariadne had made a beautiful palace, her first job since graduating; and Yusuf had left Mombasa again, as a favor to Eames, with the understanding that he would tell Eames about any shady deals.
And Eames had taken the job for Arthur. A forger wasn’t needed, but Arthur had wanted someone he trusted at his back. He hadn’t admitted to anything so flighty as a bad ‘feeling’ about the job, but he was uneasy.
And now they’d all woken up—except Arthur.
Eames wanted to kill something. He settled for slamming Cobb into the wall; they’d been the pair on the second level. “What happened down there?” he demanded and Cobb flinched.
“I don’t know!” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it, Eames.” He grabbed at Eames’ hands and Eames tightened his grip on Cobb’s shoulders.
Yusuf stayed out of reach and Ariadne said, “Eames!”
“Yusuf,” Eames growled, “it was normal somnacin, yes?”
“I swear,” Yusuf promised. “No tricks, nothing new. A normal dose.”
“So then, Cobb,” he said, shoving Cobb harder into the wall, “tell me what happened.”
Cob shuddered. “A house just appeared. And some trees. The palace faded out and—” He paled. “And there were kids. Some were skeletons, and fuck, fuck—” Closing his eyes, he swallowed noisily. “He told me he’d be right behind me. He went in the house.”
Eames loosened his grip. He let go and turned away, hurrying to Arthur’s table. Ariadne’s blueprints were spread out over Arthur’s research and he shoved them aside.
“Yusuf,” he ordered, “check Arthur.” He flipped through Arthur’s notes, looking for anything that might—
There. The mark had been abused as a child. His honorary uncle, his father’s best friend. At least a year till his sister told her favorite teacher, and the man… well, he didn’t go to jail. Someone killed him and the police didn’t try too hard to solve that case.
Shit. Arthur had said the mark had an unhappy childhood, but no wonder he wanted someone he trusted at his back.
“What is it?” Ariadne asked.
Eames ignored her. He glared at Cobb. “You didn’t recognize the house?”
Cob shook his head.
Eames paused. Arthur wouldn’t have said anything. Mal knew… but she wouldn’t have told Cobb without Arthur’s permission.
“Fuck,” he muttered.
He stalked back to the PASIV and told Yusuf, “Send me back under.”
“Eames,” Cobb said. “Until we know what went wrong—”
“Yusuf!” Eames ordered. Yusuf nodded and hurried over.
“Eames,” Ariadne tried. “Please, wait until I—”
But he was already under again.
Arthur’s mind was familiar. Their training ground was a deadly place, the hardest Eames had ever visited. Arthur’s projections were vicious and clever, and Eames had never once been able to hide from them for more than ten minutes.
Until he met Arthur, Eames had thought himself the most dangerous man in the illicit dreamsharing community.
But now in Arthur’s dream, there were no projections. There was an old rundown house, backed into a copse of dying trees, and a shabby collection of graves in the yard.
“Bloody hell, darling,” Eames muttered.
Nothing for it, though. He walked down the dirt path between the graves, knocked on the rotten door, and waited.
Eames would never be sure exactly what happened. Arthur was truly an expert in compartmentalization, he had never once talked about those years, and the mark’s history had brought it all up again…
A boy answered the door. He said, “Pop isn’t home. I’m not supposed to let people in.”
Eames smiled at him. “Well then, how about we have a walkabout?” The kid blinked. “I’m new to town, you see. I’m the house just beyond those trees.” He nodded to the south and the kid looked over.
“I—I guess so,” he stammered. “Pop says we should be neighborly.”
Yes, Eames supposed. People don’t usually wonder what good neighbors have to hide.
“Maybe we can get hot dogs,” Eames suggested, leading the way down the path. “I’m Eames.”
“Ca-Cameron,” the kid said. “And I like hot dogs.”
He wandered with the kid, drawing him out. Cameron liked boats and history. He also knew everything there was to know about forest ecology. When he got excited, he forgot to limp and hold his ribs.
“Well,” Eames finally said. “I’ll let you get home before Pop, yeah? I’ll be around later to introduce myself to him.”
Cameron held out a hand. “It was nice to meet you, Mr. Eames.”
Eames solemnly shook his hand. “You, too, Cameron.”
His house to the south beyond the trees looked much like his hated childhood home. He ignored all the memories and went straight to the master bedroom, where his PASIV waited. He sent himself under again.
He woke in front of Cameron’s house, this time without the graveyard. There were finally projections, though—the ones Cobb described, boys with rotting skin or very little skin at all. They all stared at him for a moment before visibly dismissing him.
All the ones still recognizable looked shockingly similar, like Cameron in the first dream. The smallest skeleton was the only one to walk over to him. “Look out for Pop,” the skeleton said. “He’s angry.”
“What’s your name?” Eames asked softly. On closer inspection, this little talkative skeleton-boy was the only one with no skin at all. “You were the first,” Eames said, feeling sick.
“I’m Cameron,” he replied. “The first Cameron.” He sounded young, maybe seven years old. “I wasn’t strong enough,” he added sadly. “So Pop got a second Cameron, one that lasted.” Eames closed his eyes, but Arthur wanted him to know this (or maybe, Arthur couldn’t keep it in anymore), so Cameron continued, “The second Cameron was Cameron for longer than I lived. Isn’t that funny?”
“Yeah,” Eames said. “Do you know where the second Cameron is right now?”
All the projections pointed to the house.
“Of course,” Eames said. “Fuck.”
The projections watched him, but none approached as he walked up to the house. Most of them backed away. He ignored them as he knocked on the door, counting to twenty before knocking again.
He hoped Cameron would answer, but instead an average-looking man swung it open as he got to forty. Eames saw everything in a glance—blood beneath his nails and dotting his clothes, innocent I’m just a normal man smile on his face, nothing noticeable or screaming I’m evil and like to torture little boys. Nothing except the blood.
“Can I help you?” the projection asked. “I’m in the middle of a project.”
A project, Eames thought. You fucker.
Eames’ favorite knife was in hand, blade shiny and sharp, and the projection’s throat gaped open. None of the boys made a move as he gurgled and fell. Eames stepped over him, calling, “Cameron? Cameron, you alright?”
No answer, but the house had a single hall. He followed it to a stairway going down. A locked door proved no hardship, and a boy no more than fourteen, if that, huddled in the corner. He stared at Eames with wary eyes, and tried to squeeze into the wall when Eames stepped closer. Eames knelt down and softly said, “You know me, Cameron. Don’t you? We met earlier.”
“Are you one’a Pop’s friends?” Cameron asked.
“No,” he replied. “In fact, I killed Pop. And I’ll kill ‘im again, if I must. He’s a monster.”
Another projection of Pop stormed down the stairs, roaring filth and lies. Eames stood, turned, and emptied an entire clip of bullets into the bastard’s head and neck.
Cameron gaped as Eames turned back to him. “You… you killed him,” the boy whispered. He unfolded and leaned forward to rest on his knees. “You killed him!”
He looked at the body, then Eames, with wide, awe-filled eyes. He stood and took a trembling step forward. Eames caught him as he wavered, and Cameron smiled up at him.
“I know you,” Cameron said.
“Yes,” Eames said. “You do.” He helped Cameron around the body and up the stairs and down the hall and out the door. None of the projections waited and the sky was completely clear.
Eames looked at Cameron and saw Arthur in his sharpest suit, smiling the smallest, most sincere smile Eames had ever seen on his face.
“You followed me down,” he said. “And you killed Pop.”
“Twice, even,” Eames told him.
Arthur chuckled, and it turned into a deep, belly-aching laugh. When he finally regained control, he let himself fall backward and spread his arms in the grass. “You knew about Cameron?” he asked. “About Pop?”
“No,” Eames replied, dropping down next to Arthur. “I suspected. I’d guessed you were abused, Arthur, but the degree…” He flicked a glance to where the graveyard and the dead boys had been. “You are amazing,” he said.
Arthur turned his face away. “I was just a scared kid, Eames. I survived.”
Eames reached down to grip his hand. “Don’t downplay yourself, darling.”
Arthur glanced back, a small embarrassed grin on his lips. “I was Neil Lacey,” he said. “Then Pop took me and I became Cameron Miller.” He paused, looking at the grass, digging his fingers into the dirt. “I became Neil Lacey again,” he said. “And then I killed him, to become Arthur.”
Eames shook his head, bringing his free hand up to gently caress Arthur’s face. “You didn’t kill Neil,” he said. “Or Cameron. They’re still in you. I know because of where we are.”
Arthur sat up, looking past Eames to the lake. Pop’s house was gone; in its place stood a welcoming, warm home and a lake with a couple of boats docked. “Oh,” Arthur breathed. He lunged to his feet, pulling Eames with him. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go sailing.”
They sailed until the timer ran out.
The first thing Eames did was look to Arthur: Arthur’s eyes were open, he was sitting up, and he was smiling at Eames.
Eames collapsed back down with a relieved sigh, and he said, “Good news, Cobb—you won’t die today.”
Arthur scoffed. “Mr. Eames, you’d be mistaken if you think I’ll let you kill him.”
Eames smiled and chuckled. “I’m glad you’re awake, darling.”
No one wanted to let Arthur go anywhere alone. Since Eames had fetched him, he pulled rank and took Arthur back to his hotel.
Eames didn’t ask about the dream, about Pop or Cameron or Neil. Instead he ordered room service while Arthur showered and kept up a steady stream of chatter while Arthur ate.
He paused to steal a bite of Arthur’s steak and Arthur took a deep breath. He said, “I was seven.”
He said, “I told them to do what he wanted and they’d be safe.”
He said, “I was Cameron Miller. I’d forgotten all about Neil Lacey.”
He said, “I’m tired.”
Eames took his hand, kissed his forehead, and murmured, “Arthur, come to bed.”
That night, he held Arthur while Arthur trembled, tears on his face. “Hush, love,” Eames whispered. “Pop’s dead, the house is gone, and I’ll always come for you.”
Arthur pressed a sleepy kiss to his neck and Eames hummed a lullaby.